‘The Butler’ Is A Masterfully Crafted Civil Rights Narrative
Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 12, 2013 12:09
The quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that follows the opening credits and states, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” illuminates that which cannot be described about Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a powerful depiction of an intangible pursuit of a better life, through struggle, mistakes, hardship, and love.
The movie recounts the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the White House butler for three decades, through depictions of his memories, accompanied by the occasional narration of Whitaker’s warm and lilting voice. The scenes feel aged, as if from another time or place, even when the storyline reaches the present at the end of the film. This is particularly notable at the outset, in which scenes from his childhood on the cotton farm could easily describe a life of forced servitude at any point in the previous century. This timelessness has both positive and negative effects on the viewing experience, but ultimately does not detract from the message and effectiveness of the film. It is the world of the early 20th century that young Gaines is born into, and the story that follows is not just that of a man and his family, but that of a nation struggling to redefine itself, a people fighting for their rights, their humanity, and their social freedom.
Cecil Gaines seems to provide a figure around which the screenwriters could personify the slow march of the civil rights movement. Over the decades that the film covers, relevant historical events such as the attacks on the Freedom Riders, school integration, and the Vietnam War are drawn into the storyline to provide context. The frame for the theme of family is set early on, as Cecil runs away from the cotton farm, leaving behind his two mother figures: his biological mother and the elderly matriarch of the farm, who teaches Cecil to serve “white men.” His voice recalls with some nostalgia, “I don’t think God ever meant for people to not have a family.” And family becomes the basis for the storyline, the constant that bears the marks and scars of wounds inflicted by a changing world.
From this strong baseline, the film is able to carry heavy emotion, and this adds to its appeal, and its ability to affect. There are scenes that elicit extremely tangible pain and sorrow—for example, the scene implying Kennedy’s assassination shows a soundless portrait of Jackie Kennedy sobbing, screaming almost, sitting on a sofa in the White House, still in her iconic pink suit which is covered in blood—at her feet, her husband’s watch, her daughter’s doll. The image is wrenching, haunting, and other scenes like it imbue the film with a rawness that at times relentlessly grips the gut. And all of the characters—though many appear only momentarily throughout the film—hold a significant emotional fullness that gives dimension and life to the story.
The film itself is not remarkable. It does not break cinematic boundaries, but it tells a powerful story, and this is what makes it worth taking the time to see. Although today’s generations have a vastly different experience with the historical events of the film than their parents or grandparents had, the movie gives a perceptible reality to what, for many young people today, is a chapter in a history textbook. There is a satisfying moment toward the end, when an elderly Cecil confronts, for the second time, his supervisor about raising the wages of the black staff, who were still paid less than their white coworkers in the 1980s. The first time Cecil had asked, the man, Mr. Warner, told him to seek work elsewhere if he wanted a better salary. Upon Cecil’s second appeal, some 20 years later, Warner is ready with the same answer, to which Cecil replies, “I told Mr. President [Reagan] you would say that. And so he requests that you take the matter up with him personally.” Warner is speechless. And it is this wave of quiet power sweeping through the entirety of the film that makes it so commanding, inspiring awe and reverence, and proving that those who society attempts to cast out can always find a way to change it.